“Yis’gadal v’yis’kadash sh’mei raba.” Swaying gently back and forth, Bernie Freed chanted the timeworn mourner’s prayer in counterpoint to the doleful tolling of St. Luc’s, its hulking mass shrouded in a fog that lent a Dickensian air to the century-old cemetery.
“B’al’ma di v’ra khir’usei, v’yam’likh mal’khu—” Bernie stopped with the echo of the final bell, his lips frozen in mid-syllable. For a moment he stared at the simple pine coffin at his feet, a raised Star of David its only adornment. Like him, it seemed to hover uncertainly. Would it slide into its tidy slot or would it do something else? Something unexpected? Bernie scratched his beard, tilted his head and waited.
A single shaft of sunlight thrust through the gray haze, dropping to the clump of damp earth just to the right of Bernie’s highly buffed Oxfords. He gazed at the solitary shock of brightness, mesmerized.
Rabbi Fleischer prodded Bernie with a bony elbow. “B’chayeikhon uv’yomeikhon,” the old man prompted, a little too loudly, glaring up at the church. The massive stone building had no business being there. All those crosses and saints staring down at him gave him heartburn. St. Luc’s Père Benoît felt much the same about the Jews on his doorstep: Dead or alive, they did not belong. Both old men were powerless against the accident of nineteenth-century real estate history that placed Catholic church and Jewish cemetery side by side as reluctant neighbors.
Bernie ignored the rabbi. Instead, he dropped to his knees. He touched the ground where the brief patch of light was already fading and pressed his lips to the casket’s polished surface, ignoring the startled stares of his relatives. After a moment, he rose unsteadily, brushing away the three pairs of hands that stretched toward him. Eyes glistening, he opened his mouth as if to make a pronouncement, then shut it, saying nothing. He scanned the faces of his fellow mourners, his eyes resting for a breath longer on Sarah Swartz, his mother’s oldest friend. He would swear later that she smiled and nodded. She would swear, equally insistently, that she did nothing of the sort. Regardless, he turned his back on coffin, rabbi and family, pushed passed his aunt and marched out of the cemetery.
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